As TV-Buying Season Arrives, 4K UHD Content Inches Toward the Home

The Christmas-shopping season is upon us, and that means millions of consumers will be looking to purchase a new television set. If market projections are accurate, a sizable chunk of those units will be 4K Ultra HD sets. CEA projects that shipments of 4K Ultra HD display units will reach 800,000 by the end of this year, with $1.9 billion in revenue (a 517% boost over 2013), and revenue will exceed $5 billion in 2015. In addition, VOD content is slowly but surely on the rise, with DIRECTV, Netflix, and Sony launching services that allow consumers to stream 4K UHD movies and television shows.

Nonetheless, significant hurdles remain in the quest to deliver 4K UHD to the home on a broad scale — both technologically and otherwise. One thing is certain, however: sports will drive 4K UHD adoption.

“When the 4K sports content becomes available — and we saw it at the World Cup and will again with the Olympics approaching — I think that is when a lot of this technology and standardization will get sorted out,” Mitch Wasden, senior director, engineering, digital video design, DIRECTV, said at SVG’s TranSPORT event in New York City on Nov. 11.

Where’s the Bandwidth?
Last month, DIRECTV launched a 4K VOD service that allows subscribers with an Internet-connected Genie HD DVR set-top box and a Samsung Electronics Ultra HD TV to watch 19 UHD movie titles. Although it marks the first 4K UHD undertaking by a pay-TV provider, the limited amount of content reflects the issues operators currently face in delivering UHD to the home.

“The first 4K launches for large televisions will be the VOD and over-the-top approach. I think we can all agree on that,” Wasden said. “When you start talking about multiple 4K TVs, you start to realize the last-mile bandwidth cannot support that type of demand. So there is going to have to be other means of delivery. A title here or there is OK, but, when you talk about lots of channels and titles, that’s another story.”

According to an NSR projection released in August, 820 channels of Ultra HD content will be available via satellite by 2025. NSR forecasts DTH (direct-to-home) TV to have more than 560 4K and 8K Ultra HD channels broadcast, while cable and IPTV will have 260+ channels distributed to cable and IPTV headends. The immediate question becomes, Where is the satellite bandwidth going to come from to deliver all this 4K content?

“We are seeing the end of SD over satellite and a migration from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 over satellite and going to DVBS2,” said Steve Corda, VP, business development, North America, SES. “All that has created quite a lot of available bandwidth because the amount of programming has not increased at the same rate of the compression technology. Now you add in HEVC, and that is going to open up even more. It’s definitely going to be a challenge to support it all, but the technology is evolving to make it happen.”

Where’s the Content?
While bandwidth remains a question mark, perhaps the greatest obstacle facing widespread 4K UHD adoption is an utter dearth of content.

DIRECTV’s UHD catalogue includes blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction but is primarily limited to nature-oriented documentaries (echoing the early days of HD). Meanwhile, Sony’s Video Unlimited 4K service now offers 200 titles, highlighted primarily by Sony Studios films like The Amazing Spider-Man 2. For its part, Netflix’s 4K lineup (which requires $12-a-month Action Family Plan subscription) offers all episodes of Breaking Bad, season two of its own original series House of Cards, additional original series to come, a growing number of Hollywood films (including Smurfs 2, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters 2), and, of course, nature documentaries.

However, live 4K UHD programming, including sports, remains far off in the horizon. The prime reason? 4K VOD content remains much cheaper to create and distribute.

“When House of Cards is produced in 4K, [they use] a $25,000 RED Epic [camera] and maybe 10% more cost to conform the episodes [for 4K],” said Pierre Routhier, VP, global 3D strategy, Technicolor. “Everything else is the same as hi-def, so there is no cost-of-infrastructure increase whatsoever to do that. We do tons of movies and TV shows in 4K, and the delta in cost is negligible. If you have to change trucks for a live event, then that is quite another game.

“It is very easy to take risks with prerecorded content because you master it in 4K and release it anywhere you want; you don’t have to change any infrastructure,” he continued. “So, yes, Netflix is doing 4K, but it’s kind of easy because they don’t have to provide a whole broadcast infrastructure to do that; they just change the camera they use to shoot it.”